Writers and creators of New Worlds, Martine Brant and Peter Flannery introduce the historical drama
What was the starting-point for New Worlds?
MB: Why do we not celebrate The English Revolution when the Americans and the French, who followed the English example, celebrate theirs? Few now care to remember that, for a short period in mid-17th century, England was a Republic. It came at the cost of immense bloodshed: more men and women died in the Civil Wars as a proportion of the population than in the First World War. But extraordinary liberties were won, liberties we enjoy today and largely take for granted - the sovereignty of Parliament, freedom of conscience and speech, an independent judiciary. This is the world portrayed in The Devil’s Whore.
Then, in 1660, Charles II was crowned amid ecstatic jubilation that the restoration of the monarchy would settle the kingdom. But by 1680 his regime was descending into repressive autocracy. Brutally and systematically, Charles stamped out these hard-won rights of the freeborn English man. But ideas don’t die. Freedom, once won, is hard to give up. So where did these ideas and ideals go? That was our starting-point for New Worlds.
And where did they go?
MB: The flame of The Good Old Cause was kept alive by brave Englishmen and women who took enormous risks to secure the constitutional monarchy we have today.
PF: Others went overseas, particularly across the Atlantic to New England where they found fertile ground among the republican-minded Puritans. The story of New Worlds takes us to Massachusetts, where William Goffe, one of the men who had signed Charles I’s death warrant, had taken refuge.
But for all their libertarian ideals, the English settlers ruthlessly exploited the native Indians. In the name of doing God’s work, they indulged in a pretty ugly land grab. The Puritans were the Taliban of the time. New Worlds depicts the little-known side to this society.
We think of the Restoration as an age of merriment and bawdy licence. Nell Gwyn and all that...
MB: It certainly seemed so at first. A pleasure-loving King making merry with his mistresses, libertines carousing at court, and the people aping their manners. But the popular image hides a darker truth - one of appalling brutality and enforced conformity: a reign of terror. In an escalating struggle to win over public opinion, both the King and his Whig opponents whipped up media hysteria against non-conformists, especially Roman Catholics. Old religious wounds were still fresh, and many feared that Charles’ Roman Catholic brother, James, would succeed to the throne, triggering another civil war. Papists were cast as terrorists and the Popish Plot fabricated to ensnare them.
PF: There’s a fascinating tension here when we came to write our drama. It’s a world where you’d be going to one of the new Restoration plays or a lecture in the New Science at the Royal Society, walking past bodies in gibbets and heads on poles.
We see a lot of the Tudors in TV drama: why so little about this period?
MB: I think it’s largely to do with the fact we cut off the head of the King yet we still have a monarchy. It’s an uncomfortable memory. That’s why there is a collective amnesia about our own Revolution. And about the ferocious repression of civil liberties under the Restoration.
PF: The image of the Merry Monarch serves this purpose, and perhaps that’s why it has become the dominant interpretation. The Civil Wars and the republic are taught dismissively as 'the Interregnum' - a minor blip between two monarchs, not a massively important chapter in our political history.
MB: And that of the world. The liberties won by Englishmen and women in the Stuart period form the foundation-stone of all modern democracies. Yet the men who inspired it are largely forgotten. English heroes, like Algernon Sidney, executed by Charles II in a cynical abuse of the legal process. He was remembered in the naming of Sidney, Australia, and his words 'Let this hand be an enemy to tyrants...' form the motto of Massachusetts state, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an English school child who had heard of him!
How much is fact and how much fiction?
MB: We feel an overwhelming obligation to be truthful to the history, not just to the facts but to the attitudes and values of the time. We worked assiduously to ensure accuracy and authenticity.
PF: We interwove real historical characters (Charles II, Monmouth, Judge Jeffreys, William Goffe) with fictional ones (Angelica, Beth, John Francis, Abe, Ned, Hope). The effect, I hope, is that all feel equally real and true to their time. We reflected this in the language and the idiom.
MB: We had to invent conversations and events, of course, but wherever there were direct eye-witness accounts we used them. Much of what Judge Jeffreys says, for instance, and even some witticisms of the King, are as recorded. However, at every stage we have tried hard to stay true to the world and what might have happened.
PF: We invented the Indian tribe, for example, but they are based on a number of woodland tribes of Massachusetts that did exist and their interaction with the English settlers has direct parallels in historical fact. The past is only partly a foreign country, and human nature and motivation and emotion transcend time.
MB: Our characters may be dressed in period costume but you can see modern echoes all the way through. When Hope is made to wear the shame sign, you think of the Taliban’s treatment of women; when you see the righteous self-justification of annexing Indian lands, you think of the concept of exceptionalism underlying much of American policy.
What message do you want the viewers to take away?
MB: New Worlds is the love story of four young people caught up in the timeless struggle of how to live a good life in an unjust world and how to make that world a fairer place. It’s about hope and idealism and the indomitable human spirit. It’s about survival and how, in the final account, there is always love – not just for each other but for all mankind.
PF: Each generation has to create its own way of believing in the world, and the sadness of our story is that it ends at a time of political failure when so many ideals seem to have been crushed.
MB: But it is also full of hope. The new generation - Beth and Abe – reject violence and, following in the light of their parents, they determine to lead by example, in the hope that their values will spread. As history tells us they did, in fact. Their values took root and fashioned the world we know today. But we need to remember how we got here. The value of historical drama is to remind us of our past so that we may not be doomed to repeat it.